Â Russia isn’t a member of NATO. It never will be. But the country which once used to dominate and run the rival Warsaw Pact is nevertheless having a crucial influence on the deliberations in Bucharest of the 26-nation alliance. Whether western powers like it or not, Russia is becoming NATO-Plus-One.
The thing Vladimir Putin has hated most in his political life is the decline of the old Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. He believes that his bibulous predecessor Boris Yeltsin effectively “gave away the shop” in the 1990s.
But the now retiring president (and soon-to-be prime minister to his successor Dmitry Medvedev) would be delighted how often the phrase, “But how will Russia react?” comes up in behind the scenes discussions both in NATO and the European Union.
On the enlargement of NATO, on Kosovo, on the United States missile defense plan, it is for many NATO states — especially those heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil supplies — a constantly repeated question.
Putin’s aim throughout his years in the Kremlin has been to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful place at all the top tables, an ambition in which he has been aided enormously by Russia’s growth as an energy producer.
Russia’s president is less concerned, some diplomats say, with what the superpower United States actually does than with being seen as its equal in determining the outcome of world events. And this NATO summit is a clear measurement of how far he has succeeded.
When Bush calls for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia to be admitted to Membership Action Plans, putting them on the track towards admission into the alliance as a reward for their progress in building democracy, the reaction of France and Germany is that this would be a step too far in upsetting the balance of power.
Already nervous of furious Russian reactions over the U.S. missile defense plan, which involves the installation of bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, they have made clear they don’t reckon it worth upsetting the Kremlin further on this issue.
In effect, say potentially disappointed suitors like Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, they are handing Russia a veto on NATO membership.
If NATO does not resist the Russian warnings that launching a NATO membership process for Ukraine and Georgia would create a “security crisis,” they argue, then Putin is still being allowed to rule over the now sovereign countries in his “near abroad.”
Even Bush used most of the words he devoted to missile defense in a keynote address in Bucharest to underline that the plan is not intended as a threat to Russia.
“The missile defense capabilities we are developing are not designed to defend against Russia, just as the new NATO we are building is not designed to defend against Russia. The Cold War is over. Russia is not our enemy. We are working toward a new security relationship with Russia whose foundation does not rest on the prospect of mutual annihilation.”
Russia, of course, sees it differently. It fears the missile sites could be turned into offensive weapon sites. In consequence, to the alarm of some NATO members, it has scrapped an agreement on conventional force levels in Europe and threatened to target missiles on countries which house missile defense installations for the U.S.
Bush will have the chance to talk head to head with President Putin for the last time while they are both presidents at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sunday. The other NATO heads will also see Putin. For the first time since the foundation of the Russia-NATO Council in 2002, he is turning up to their meeting here in Bucharest on Thursday.
They have been intrigued to learn from the Russian media that despite his anger over missile defense and over Bush’s appeal to the NATO members to give MAP status to Georgia and Ukraine, despite his shipping this week of “humanitarian supplies” to Serbs in Kosovo, Putin is planning to accentuate the positive in Bucharest.
They hope that means he will give a Russian say-so to the transportation of supplies for the 47,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan across Russian territory. If he does, it will be a breakthrough, but of course one which would once again underline the importance of listening to what Moscow has to say.